Xenogears – PS1

 

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…one of the minor enemies, actually.

The pathology of an independent, freelance game critic such as myself is not unlike the madman who plunges head-first into human waste hoping that, unlike the last two-dozen piles of excrement, there might be something good inside. I generally prefer to think of it like the Shawshank Redemption, that someday I’ll emerge victorious and stand triumphantly cheering in the rain as I taste the sweet, longed-for joys of pure freedom; unfortunately, I’ll have to swim through a lot of shit to get there. I don’t know. Maybe making a habit of criticizing games just teaches me to look for the negative, or maybe having just a modicum of disposable income and enough tech skills to emulate just about anything I can’t afford has piled up the shitty games that look interesting at first glance. Fortunately, every so often there’s a game that, even after two decades of play, still does everything right. A game so well-conceived that it’s almost depressing how fucking awesome it is. A story so strong it empowers you, makes you feel invincible. “Yes!” you cry to the heavens. “I am important! I have made contact with the divine and thrown the yokes and shackles of an oppressive deity from the shoulders of mankind, and thanks to me the world will at long last know the true release of tension and live its days in glorious peace. Now I have to shut off the Playstation, look for my unemployment check, and then go watch the dog take a shit in the back yard so I can pick it up with my hand.”

Xeno6Xenogears is, quite frankly, the best game ever made, and there is a special place in Hell, where you’re forced to play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde until the end of eternity, reserved for any of you who disagree with me. How’s that for being completely objective, non-judgmental and totally writing without any preconceived notions whatsoever?

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Have you considered, maybe, joining the circus?

Most often cited as Xenogears’ biggest flaw is its story, said to be convoluted, harder to follow than a GPS unit set to the “down syndrome” voice, and denser than the impacted bowel of a neutron star. All those grievances are…well, I’ll give it this much; it’s not the way we usually tell stories in video games. Even some of the best told stories necessarily take a back seat to gameplay. That’s why the vast majority of games fall into the fantasy genre, where questing allows both plot an character to take a direct route through the vilest, stinkiest dens of monsters in order to carry out interspecies genocide in the name of personal growth and development. If you instead want to steer your heroes through populated areas to examine mundane desires and struggles of a broken society under the oppression of the powerful, you might have to reign in those violent instincts lest we start to notice your characters’ party tends to look like boys’ night out with Joseph Stalin, Genghis Kahn and Hannibal Lecter.

Xenogears attempts just that. Our main character, Fei, starts the game with nothing but his God-given amnesia trope and the personality of a gladiola. When a centuries-old war crash lands in his village (after somehow avoiding it for five hundred years), he gets into an abandoned mech (called “gears” in this world), and in trying to protect everyone accidentally inflicts collateral damage that slaughters 95% of the population. Oops. Anyway, he spontaneously decides to take a short hiatus from living in the village, and begins to travel the world, exercising more care about where and when he participates in battle. Problem is, he attracts trouble like Scooby Doo attracts asshole cosplayers, not to mention he discovers that a hidden nation of elites ruled by an oligarchy of old men with strong self-interests and an inept figurehead of executive power is manipulating world events through the use of their over-inflated military. Oh, I know what you’re thinking, though…they don’t represent the United States because their de facto leader is a brilliant physicist who specializes in life-extending nanoengineering, while our de facto leader is a clown that wants you to supersize your french fries.

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Why does God look like someone drew a face on the Thanksgiving turkey?

Anyway, the story does weave together about a dozen plots, complete with several factions of villains who all strive for their own personal goals. In short, we see people struggling to live and find meaning in life across the world, only for the villain to resurrect a God who has literally been farming us because he was hurt 10,000 years ago and has to harvest a shit ton of organs. So the hero, who has both to discover the reason why his personality is as developed as a hydrangea and to embrace some weird, Freudian mommy issues, now has to fight that god just to restore meaning to the lives of the game’s survivors. Almost all characters affect the plot in one way or another. Villains have noble ambitions and human emotions, while heroes make mistakes and succumb to temptations. It’s a moving story, deeply human, beautifully written, and translated with as much care as a lemur with a hangover and access to Google translate. The language is more distracting than a bikini courtroom, but I don’t think this necessarily counts as a strike against the game. Rather, I think it’s strong support for a remake. The game has one of the most amazing end-credits songs I’ve ever heard, and I think Square-Enix ought to upgrade its translation from “hungover lemur” to something a little higher up on the intelligence scale, like “stoned cocker spaniel” or maybe “pig that isn’t so sure that was really a truffle anymore.”

Xeno1

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that…

Also a point in the “needs a remake” category, the game’s second disc plays like you were running out of time before the test, so Square had to rush through the Spark Notes before class started. Granted, there is something strangely Shakespearean about seeing characters act out vital scenes against a black stage and a poorly drawn backdrop, but the finer plot points about a planet in turmoil over the resurrection of an unfeeling God probably require a little more nuance and development than your average Elizabethan dick joke. And when entire dungeons are swept over in just a few lines of dialogue, the game ends like a customer service transaction from Wells Fargo—you’re more than just a little confused, but pretty sure that it owes you something it’s not planning on giving you.

Like any good RPG, the actual game is played out through hundreds upon hundreds of repetitive battles. Here, Xenogears is…eh. It’s okay. Not great. But okay. They’ve got a system where rather than enter the “fight” command a half a million times until the game ends, you mix up weak, medium, and strong attacks until your action points run out. Really, it doesn’t matter what you throw at 90% of the enemies—all you’re doing is teaching characters special deathblow combos or simply using the combos. I guess it’s better than your typical RPG. Magic in Xenogears is very much like a bedpan: it has some creative applications, but you’ll probably never want to use it unless you’re healing.

Xeno3Xenogears also employs a secondary battle system for gear fights. Rather than using up AP over a single turn, gears are fueled up and slowly deplete this fuel over the course of a dungeon. They can sacrifice a turn in battle to charge a small amount, which somehow is a feature they can’t use outside of battle. It’s like if you could only recharge your phone one percent at a time while in your car, idling in the fast lane of the freeway (functionality which I hear is coming in the next model iPhone). Gear battles take a little more thought than character battles since you can’t level-up your mechs. So just to lay this out here, your gear can only charge when its being attacked, it can fly in cut scenes but can’t reach a treasure box on the top shelf when under your control, but Squaresoft drew the line at a robot getting stronger through experience points. That somehow would have shattered suspension of disbelief? Meh. Whatever. The gear battles are difficult because you’re limited to the upgrades you can purchase in shops and three equipment slots, but once you lose to a major boss, you know what attacks to prep for and can equip your gear properly. The only downside is it requires you to either play through the game once or, you know…die…in order to have a decent shot at winning.

But quite honestly, any of the games combat flaws slide by virtually unnoticed because of how fluid and compelling the story is. So let’s get on it, Square. Time for a remake already!

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Sands of Destruction – NDS

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If I had to list off the best games ever made, of course Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI would sit near the top. Every list of best RPGs or best SNES games and even a bunch of best-game-ever lists pick one or the other. Still, an often overlooked gem for the Playstation wins out over both of them: Xenogears. But I played it recently, and with 75 or so hours of game play, I doubt I’ll come back to it soon. Plus, while I can play Chrono Trigger over and over without getting bored with the story (and watch Back to the Future for days straight…must have something to do with time travel), overplaying a finely crafted drama like Xenogears tends to devalue the story. Fortunately, the list of people who love the game begins with the team who designed it, and thanks to their endless quest to make lightning strike as often as possible, they’ve hoisted the same battered rod used for Xenogears and Xenosaga, and enough metal remained that it channeled a trickle of electrons into an NDS game called “Sands of Destruction.”

The player can rotate the map like in Xenogears. Except in about half the areas. Because fuck that!

The player can rotate the map like in Xenogears. Except in about half the areas. Because fuck that!

From the beginning, the story clearly strives to lead the same life as big brother Xenogears; both games focus on the exploits of a twat with a personality often found only among the most noble and kind-hearted sacks of flour, who accidentally annihilates his entire village and everyone in it. Both protagonists learn they have the chosen power to do something that generally sounds like a bad idea; Xenogears’ Fei has the strength and technology to slay god, while in Sands of Destruction, a clutter of fliers reveals to Kyrie (Greek for “Lord”) that he has the power to destroy the world and should promptly join the World Annihilation Front and get on that. Then both Kyrie and Fei get taken prisoner on a sea of sand by a kind-hearted, whip-wielding pirate, et cetera, et cetera, then they kill god.

Unfortunately, Sands of Destruction doesn’t come close to the 75 hours that Xenogears had to develop their story. As much as I surrounded myself in rosaries and doused myself in holy water when I learned I had to slay god, by the end of Xenogears, I knew I needed to exterminate the sick bastard and started combing eBay for a cheap Ghostbuster proton pack. In Sands of Destruction, the WAF distributes orders like it desperately wants you to see its band perform, but for all the confetti you pick up by the end of the game, no one has given you a single reason why you need to put the world down. It certainly doesn’t feel like an impending apocalypse; no one points out frogs going extinct, polar bears balancing on ice floes, the dead rising from the grave and the virtuous ascending into heaven, or polar vortexes ruining an already cold Minnesota summer.

"In a game so bland they couldn't figure out what to do with the second screen half the time."

“In a game so bland they couldn’t figure out what to do with the second screen half the time.”

Rather than spending time developing character, conflict, or even asking the pretty young girl who rescues you from jail why the world sucks so much, the game sends you on one pointless task after another so that you run into the beast lords, twelve anthropomorphic rejects from Winnie the Pooh, mowing them down one after another without any real idea of what they’ve done to oppress the human population or ruin the world. In addition to the beast lords, Kyrie crosses paths with primal lords, titanic gods who appear to govern the whims of nature. These primal lords accept the inevitable apocalypse with a positive spirit and a chipper attitude, but still attempt to re-decorate their houses with his bowels to show the ungrateful brat a lesson about what happens to him if he ignores his chores to go gallivanting around not destroying the world. That’ll teach him! The story plays out entirely without any motivation for or investment in the quest at hand, and in the ending sequence after you kill god and find out that “creating your own world” means making everything exactly the same except for replacing all the sand with water, I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone really had to do anything. I mean, no one really seemed all that thirsty before, and the sand ships seemed to work just fine. Any mystique or meaningful interpretation behind the story becomes flimsy and transparent to anyone with a few weeks of Beginning Latin under their belt. Only one character kept my attention for any length of time, mostly out of the novelty of a teddy-bear bounty hunter with a gruff, middle-aged, man’s man voice. He joins the party because he wants to take in one of the characters for her bounty, then just sort of goes along with all their plans and quests without any real explanation. Also more of a novelty interest, one of the early villains speaks in the angriest, most self-absorbed gay lisp I have ever heard. I might suggest playing the game simply for the voice acting, except for the long, unskippable pauses between lines of dialogue.

The game really likes to make you wait. Much like in Xenosaga, characters get two attacks per turn, sometimes earning an extra attack through–as far as I can tell–pure fucking chance. Enemies, however, can chain together about as many attacks as they feel like, often not quitting until at least one character dies. Factor in useless animations where they spasm like a raver in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s, and enemy turns become useful moments to get stuff done around the house. Go make a sandwich. Vacuum the floor. Do your taxes. Eat that sandwich. Don’t worry. Your characters won’t take their turns any time soon. You won’t miss anything. The battles display a turn order like in Final Fantasy X or Xenosaga, but not with enough accuracy that it lets you plan out a strategy or anything. Nope. Enemies can cut their way into the sequence whenever they like, certain characters will forget about their turns entirely, and every so often they’ll even trade order, making the display more of an annoying distraction than useful information.

Taupy dealt about 10 times the damage as Kyrie. I used him often.

Taupy dealt about 10 times the damage as Kyrie. I used him often.

It feels like Sega developed and published this game at gun point; as if they pounded out a rough draft and never bothered fixing any of the problems with it. Kyrie attacks as if I equipped him with a pair of used chopsticks, while a few of the other characters can deal about 100x the damage that creatures can take. They try to balance this out by giving enemies obnoxiously high evade rates, which I’ve said before only turns battles into endless sessions of watching battle animations like you have to remember them for a test. Similar to Xenosaga and Xenogears, attacks correspond directly to buttons, with X delivering a single hard-hitting attack, and Y dealing a flurry of blows, each one dealing as much as a single X attack, and a system of magic attacks, fully powered up, allows characters to expend SP to almost deal as much damage as a single X attack. I advise you to tape down the Y button and open up a bag of chips to eat with the sandwich you made during the boss fight.

Teddy bear kicking the shit out of someone.

Teddy bear kicking the shit out of someone.

Character customization had potential, allowing the player to power up attacks at the expense of accuracy or accuracy at the expense of attacks. Magic attacks traded off power and SP cost. Still, only ever using the one attack, I didn’t feel any sense of urgency in strategizing how I’d level them up. I hit the attacks I used and then just dicked around with the rest of my customizing points to keep them from piling up. Furthermore, by the time I got to advanced magic spells, I started noticing that players simply can’t use certain attacks that they learn. At various points during the game, players learn “quips,” short phrases that they can repeat in battle. Unlike most useless battle cries, these have effects, usually support statuses, that can actually make a difference. Each character learns a total of five, and can equip…four. Again, the game doesn’t really press you to make the difficult choices.

Most dungeons consist of only a few screens, padded out with all the tedious puzzles they could think of and enemy encounters so frequent that the Toyko metro system during rush hour has more breathing room. And that serves as a good metaphor for this game. It has a lot of good things in it, but not enough elbow room to use it for anything constructive. Most of this game only exists to pad out a handful of interesting ideas into a full-length (about 20~25 hours), marketable product for the NDS, and tedious methods for making a game feel longer without actually giving us a reason to play it tend to amount to an Asian train ride; you may have gotten somewhere, but only at the expense of an unpleasant journey, and you get off feeling like someone either owes you an apology or dinner.

Ragnarok: The Fate of Gods

Hey everyone! Special super extra bonus entry this week! I get to clue you in on one of the most amazing book offers a video game fan could ever ask for. Just kidding! Actually I just want to subject you to some shameless self-promotion. But still, if you enjoy video games–which you should, if you read this blog–you would enjoy this book.

Ragnarok: The Fate of Gods tells the story of a swordsman struggling to survive in a Post-Apocalyptic Orwellian dystopia, terrorized by monsters and ruled by a reclusive overlord. I could tell you more of the plot, but I’d just end up repeating all the information on the Amazon Page.

Why should I pitch this book here? You mean, other than the fact that I have very few meager sources of income and would appreciate the $1.97 royalty per copy sold? Well, when I wrote it, I blended a lot of common themes from video games, popular science fiction, and myth. Particularly if you enjoy RPGs–and most specifically Final Fantasy, Xenogears or Xenosaga–you should read it.

Unfortunately, no, you can’t find print copies, only the Kindle edition, BUT you can read it via a free kindle app if you don’t have your own e-Reader. Also, amazon has made the book available (in English) on many of their multinational websites; good news to all my non-American readers. Just search for “Ragnarok Fate of Gods.” Otherwise, to buy via the American site, follow this link.

Keep in mind that I have a masters degree in publishing–I didn’t just hammer this out over a weekend and slap a price tag on it. You’ll get some high quality stuff here, and it’ll only cost you three dollars.

And if you like it, please leave a review on Amazon for others to find. And then tell two friends…and have them tell two friends…

Thanks!